Zettelkasten Forum


The fleeting note in "How to Take Smart Notes" by Sönke Ahrens

Sönke Ahrens discusses three descriptive categories of notes in How to Take Smart Notes. The three categories are: fleeting notes, permanent notes and project notes. The role of the fleeting note in Ahrens's account of the Zettelkasten method is more significant than its name suggests, because of the attitude toward writing that Ahrens wants note takers to adopt. The fleeting note has a normative function in How To Take Smart Notes. Ahrens wants writing to be the reason that note takers do virtually anything. This would be the case if one were to "make writing the only thing that counts."

First, a capsule summary of the three descriptive categories, with fleeting notes last.

Permanent notes are notes that end up in the Zettelkasten. These have a standard format, and can link to other notes. The Zettelkasten has the function of the shipping container in Ahrens's shipping container analogy. Another closely related analogy is the shipping hub, used by express shipping companies such as FedEx. The point of the analogy is to emphasize a procedure that initially seems like a delivery detour, but will introduce efficiencies later. In this case, the efficiency results from a single repository with notes in a standardized format, in which salient relationships among notes are preserved, and from which notes can be used in longer form writing projects later. Permanent notes are Zettels and Zettels are permanent notes, only they aren't immutable as their name misleadingly suggests. They can be revised. [Since Ahrens doesn't provide a template for notes, I offer a template for free at https://github.com/flengyel/Zettel. @Will Simpson also has a note template. I also make available a Cornel Notes template in LaTeX and SVG format for Stylus Labs Write, a writing program for digital tablets that I use for mathematical and handwritten notes, and for online note taking and for presentations.]

Project notes are mentioned briefly by Ahrens. These concern making use of the Zettelkasten for academic and published writing. I won't dwell on these--they figure in the "bottom-up" process Ahrens describes for writing projects that make use of the Zettelkasten.

So-called literature notes are mentioned by Ahrens, but Ahrens doesn't assign these notes to their own category. This has led to confusion among readers, if the online discussion of Literature Notes is any guide. Literature notes reside in a reference manager such as Zotero. The term 'literature note' makes it seem as if Ahrens meant notes in the Zettelkasten that quote, paraphrase or cite other literature., but Ahrens means a citation in a reference manager. The intent is to cultivate a consistent, scholarly practice in the citation of literature.

Fleeting notes are to be discarded after being recast for inclusion in the Zettelkasten as permanent notes. Ahrens assigns the fleeting note to its own category to emphasize their function and to discuss the attitude that he wants users of the Zettelkasten method to adopt. Ahrens advises reading with paper and pen in hand, and advises against highlighting or marking up books and leaving slips of paper around. Ahrens also expects fleeting notes to be written judiciously on the spot, rewritten as Zettels (if useful) and discarded within a day or two.

Ahrens's instrumentalism toward writing goes beyond the advice to take notes. He says that one should act as if writing is the only thing that matters. The fleeting note the initial vehicle of expression through which this radical normative stance is realized. [Now I would like the reader to imagine a sitcom laugh track at my expense for taking a stab at deep thought and the fashionable intellectual virtue of nuance. As for me, I think that having writing inform your conduct is superior to Modern Stoicism, and possibly equal to Epicureanism.]

I should have recognized this attitude toward writing when first I encountered it in Ahrens: I grew up with writers. Perhaps I missed it because Ahrens is writing for academic writers, but making writing the only thing that counts is for more than the academic writer. In Aristotelian terms, writing is the final cause. Whatever you do, ask yourself, "what writing is in it for me?" Carry your notebook with you wherever you go, the way an artist brings their sketchbook with them everywhere. (I have to bring both.) You don't just go to Old John's Diner only to eat breakfast, you go to eavesdrop on the diners at nearby tables and jot down the useful bits of dialogue. And you do not ask permission either. This comes with the predatory imperative to make writing the only thing that matters. You don't go to seminars to be entertained or to catch up on sleep (with exceptions for distinguished faculty, and myself, of course) you go to take (fleeting) notes, with the expectation that you will transform your fleeting notes into the Zettel standard format within a day or two. If writing isn't the likely outcome, don't go. Likewise when interacting with others. Other people either help or hinder your writing, or are neutral in that respect. Cultivate those individuals who help, avoid those who don't—an instrumental attitude toward others sometimes called differential association. This is the writer's life, which I understand as instrumental, uncompromising and predatory.

Post edited by ZettelDistraction on

Erdős #2. ZK software components. “If you’re thinking without writing, you only think you’re thinking.” -- Leslie Lamport. Replies delayed, sometimes indefinitely since Life is short.

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  • edited February 2

    @ZettelDistraction said:
    So-called literature notes are mentioned by Ahrens, but Ahrens doesn't assign these notes to their own category. This has led to confusion among readers, if the online discussion of Literature Notes is any guide. Literature notes reside in a reference manager such as Zotero. The term 'literature note' makes it seem as if Ahrens meant notes in the Zettelkasten that quote, paraphrase or cite other literature., but Ahrens means a citation in a reference manager.

    note that Ahrens uses the term "literature note" and "permanent note" interchangeably. Sometimes they are the same and sometimes they are different to each other. The same can be said about fleeting literature notes.

    Literature notes are ideally of type permanent, which is why there are only three categories. Sometimes literature notes are more of a fleeting type.

    Perhaps it could be helpful to think in terms of phases instead of categories? It seems that a note can change phases, and sometimes reach a state of metastability before stabilizing.

    my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

  • @ZettelDistraction said:
    So-called literature notes are mentioned by Ahrens, but Ahrens doesn't assign these notes to their own category. This has led to confusion among readers, if the online discussion of Literature Notes is any guide. Literature notes reside in a reference manager such as Zotero. The term 'literature note' makes it seem as if Ahrens meant notes in the Zettelkasten that quote, paraphrase or cite other literature., but Ahrens means a citation in a reference manager.

    @zk_1000 said:
    note that Ahrens uses the term "literature note" and "permanent note" interchangeably. Sometimes they are the same and sometimes they are different to each other.

    I had the same impression about literature notes, but then I reread where they were introduced, and edited that possibility out. I could be documenting that I am an indifferent reader. It may be necessary to create literature notes about literature notes to check how Ahrens uses the term. It is true that Ahrens doesn't assign them to their own category. But I think Ahrens doesn't want the idea of the reference manager to get lost.

    A disclaimer: I'm not advocating the use of these terms, but I would like to pin down their meaning if possible. They've been discussed and beaten to death, disinterred, re-examined, beaten and buried again. The "note" is probably enough. I don't go into other subcategories, such as the structure note. My interest was in the fleeting note, and in drawing out a logical conclusion about them--assuming that Ahrens wasn't exaggerating when he said to make writing the only thing that counts.

    Erdős #2. ZK software components. “If you’re thinking without writing, you only think you’re thinking.” -- Leslie Lamport. Replies delayed, sometimes indefinitely since Life is short.

  • edited February 2

    Loved your piece, @ZettelDistraction . Especially because you're pushing the significance of the fleeting note, whereas I am forever trying to de-emphasize it's significance. I'm finding this to be a nice balance. (In reality, I try to show that fleeting notes are important, but not unique to zk. They are the same notes people have been taking forever. "Jots" and the like).

    Personally, I wish (a boy can wish, can't he) that Ahrens never gave names to anything but the permanent note (and in its case chose a different, less-"permanent" name), as doing so has muddied new people's understanding of what's needed to start a zk. Slowly and on the side, I've been working on a piece specifically for newly interested people who are confused by all the rhetoric online, and one of the major issues I see time again (aside from the "folders discussion") is over all the different "kinds" of notes people think they need to grapple with, including and especially the so-called literature note. This post may come in handy as I'm finishing up mine. I'll try and find a way to quote and cite you. :)

    (ps: A friend of mine translated HTTSN into Spanish, and I'm tempted to have her tell him that if/when he comes out with a revised edition, to please take out all references to "literature note" and just say "your references" or "your reference folder." Then, maybe, we can be rid of this literature note biz for good). 😉


    edit: for clarity

    Post edited by taurusnoises on
  • edited February 2

    @taurusnoises said:
    Loved your piece, @zk_1000 .

    If you're referring to the original post, I'm the author @ZettelDistraction.

    I'll try and find a way to quote and cite you. :)

    It is CC BY-SA 4.0 like virtually everything else on this blog.

    I'm looking forward to reading your Zettelkasten primer, when it comes out, @zk_1000. :smiley: I mean @taurusnoises.

    I need to add some references to justify some assertions, though I can't update the OP.

    Ahrens writes that Literature Notes only reside in the reference manager on pages 24, 44...

    (to be continued)

    Erdős #2. ZK software components. “If you’re thinking without writing, you only think you’re thinking.” -- Leslie Lamport. Replies delayed, sometimes indefinitely since Life is short.

  • edited February 2

    Literature notes are permanent in the same way as permanent notes are. They are, in fact, part of the same category.

    @ZettelDistraction said:
    It is true that Ahrens doesn't assign them to their own category. But I think Ahrens doesn't want the idea of the reference manager to get lost.

    Ahrens system consists of two Zettelkasten, a main one and a bibliographic one. Both are holding notes from the permanent category. The difference is that the bibliographic one holds literature notes and the main one permanent notes. The bibliographic Zettelkasten is synonymous to the reference system.

    The term 'slip-box' is ambiguous.

    The workflow describes a part where literature notes turn into permanent notes. This is slightly incorrect because they are already permanent notes. What is really happening is that new permanent notes are created in the main Zettelkasten based on the literature notes from the bibliographic Zettelkasten.

    Post edited by zk_1000 on

    my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

  • edited February 2

    @ZettelDistraction Yes! So many Z's so little time... 😭 (fixed).

    @zk_1000 "Ahrens system consists of two Zettelkasten, a main one and a bibliographic one."

    Is this true? Or, is Ahrens describing two filing systems: 1. a zettelkasten, 2. a file filled with bibliographic details? Genuine question. The distinction I would make being that 1. is interlinked and filled with what Ahrens calls perms notes, and 2. is filled with slips of paper with bibliographic detail, no real links between them, so therefor not a zk. Again, curious.

    @zk_1000 "The workflow describes a part where literature notes turn into permanent notes. This is slightly incorrect because they are already permanent notes. What is really happening is that new permanent notes are created in the main Zettelkasten based on the literature notes from the bibliographic Zettelkasten."

    I don't have the bandwidth to get into this, but what you're describing is one half of the discrepancy I see online. Group 1 believes lit notes are incremental, between fleeting and perm notes, on their way to becoming perm notes. Group 2 believes they are perm notes in and of themselves. If Ahrens is the arbiter of the disagreement, someone should just email him!

    Or maybe it's 1/3 of the debate:

    Lit Note as Incremental
    a book summary or series of notes distilling a book (or article etc) into bullets or some other outlining system. In this case, the Lit Note is a preliminary note, on it's way to becoming the big daddy Permanent Note.

    Lit Note as Perm Note
    no different than a Permanent Note with the exception of having as its source a piece of media (books, articles, podcasts, etc).

    Lit Note as Bibliographical Note
    not necessarily included in the ZK proper, which are linked to from any Permanent Note that is based on findings in that source. These are kept separately.

  • edited February 2

    Do you have a page reference for where literature notes turn into permanent notes?

    There is an equivocation in the term "permanent note."

    1. As a noun phrase "permanent note" refers to a note residing in the slip box and it does not refer to notes in the reference manager. P. 24, 44, 77.

    2. When "permanent note" is parsed as "a note that stays permanently in whatever collection it is placed," then it could refer to a note in the slip box or a note (attached to a citation) in the reference manager.

    I'm using "permanent note" in the first sense, which is how I read Ahrens, though it is helpful to note that the phrase "permanent note" is ambiguous and has two readings.

    Where the term "permanent note" is defined, it is defined in sense 1 above and it does not contain literature notes as a special case.

    @taurusnoises Ahrens writes that a Zettelkasten has two components: the "slip box" of permanent notes, and the reference manager, with citations that may optionally have so-called literature notes attached.

    Both kinds of notes are "permanent" in the sense that the slip box and the reference manager are roach motels for their respective motes (notes check in, but they don't check out). However, there are three categories of notes, fleeting notes, permanent notes (as a noun phrase) and project notes, and

    1. Only permanent notes (as an noun phrase) go in the slip box; and
    2. Literature notes are essentially citations, they are named (misleadingly) after the cards Luhmann used, they might have notes attached (Zotero, the reference manager of choice for Ahrens, supports attaching notes to citations); they never end up in the slip box and only go into the reference manager.
    Post edited by ZettelDistraction on

    Erdős #2. ZK software components. “If you’re thinking without writing, you only think you’re thinking.” -- Leslie Lamport. Replies delayed, sometimes indefinitely since Life is short.

  • @zk_1000 said:
    Perhaps it could be helpful to think in terms of phases instead of categories? It seems that a note can change phases, and sometimes reach a state of metastability before stabilizing.

    "Danger Will Robinson!" pun ahead!

    Bingo, every note goes through phases, and in some sense, a zettel should never settle into a static persona. In a prior post, I called them The Official Luhmann Certified 100 Note Categories, but they could have easily been called note phases or note persona.

    Will Simpson
    “Read Poetry, Listen to Good Music, and Get Exercise”
    kestrelcreek.com

  • Ahrens mentions the two slip-boxes only once, referring to Luhmann's system. For the rest of the book, 'slip-box' refers to the main slip-box and 'reference system' to the bibliographical slip-box.

    The differences between literature notes and permanent notes are described in detail, but there are, in fact, two Zettelkasten at work. Ahrens even suggests the use of fleeting literature notes as an extension, which further shows the similarity between both Zettelkästen. Literature notes are permanently stored.

    my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

  • edited February 2

    @taurusnoises said:
    Group 1 believes lit notes are incremental, between fleeting and perm notes, on their way to becoming perm notes. Group 2 believes they are perm notes in and of themselves.

    literature notes and permanent notes are stored unter two separate locations. They must be physically separated and they are not moved from one place to the other.

    my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

  • @ZettelDistraction said:
    Do you have a page reference for where literature notes turn into permanent notes?

    This is mentioned in chapter 8: "Let the Work Carry You Forward" when he is referring to step 2 of the workflow.

    my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

  • edited February 2

    @zk_1000 "literature notes and permanent notes are stored unter two separate locations. They must be physically separated and they are not moved from one place to the other."

    Perhaps, but this not at all the concensus out there, regardless of where it comes from. 🎶 "Times they are a chaaaanging." There are at least three distinct ways of understanding the definition and function of lit notes that I come across. And, people are employing along these different lines, as well. Or so they say.

    Personally, I don't even use the term or have use for such a note.

  • @zk_1000 said:
    Ahrens mentions the two slip-boxes only once, referring to Luhmann's system. For the rest of the book, 'slip-box' refers to the main slip-box and 'reference system' to the bibliographical slip-box.

    The differences between literature notes and permanent notes are described in detail, but there are, in fact, two Zettelkasten at work. Ahrens even suggests the use of fleeting literature notes as an extension, which further shows the similarity between both Zettelkästen. Literature notes are permanently stored.

    Where is the disagreement? I call the Zettelkasten the entire system, including the slip-box or its analog, the reference manager, and the notebook and pen for fleeting notes. I don't see a substantive disagreement.

    Erdős #2. ZK software components. “If you’re thinking without writing, you only think you’re thinking.” -- Leslie Lamport. Replies delayed, sometimes indefinitely since Life is short.

  • edited February 2

    @zk_1000 said:

    @ZettelDistraction said:
    Do you have a page reference for where literature notes turn into permanent notes?

    This is mentioned in chapter 8: "Let the Work Carry You Forward" when he is referring to step 2 of the workflow.

    The quote you probably mean is, on page 54

    If we try to fool ourselves here and write down incomprehensible words, we will detect it in the next step when we try to turn our literature notes into permanent notes and try to connect them with others.

    Ahrens, Sönke. How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers (p. 54).

    Going back to definitions on page 42:

    I concede!

    Literature notes are a subclass of "permanent notes", but there is no term for a permanent note that goes into the slip-box. Logically, the notes that go into the slip box are permanent "non-literature" notes.

    The absence of a name for the permanent non-literature notes is source of confusion.

    [Only they can be revised...but that's another issue]

    Reviewing the definitions:

    1. fleeting notes stay outside the Zettelkasten

    2.  Permanent notes, which will never be thrown away and contain the necessary information in themselves in a permanently understandable way. They are always stored in the same way in the same place, either in the reference system or, written as if for print, in the slip-box.

    Ahrens, Sönke. ibid (pp. 41-42).

    [I should not have edited the original statement in the original post, but I'm glad I did because when corrected it leads to the conclusion that

    Zettel = non-literature permanent note (these go in the slip box)
    However. the word Zettel never appears in Ahrens!

    Literature notes are permanent notes, these are citations in the reference manager, possibly with notes...

    So we have to add a term to the classification--permanent non-literature note is awkward. ]

    1. Project notes -- outside the system.

    Only if the notes of these three categories are kept separated it will be possible to build a critical mass of ideas within the slip-box. One of the major reasons for not getting much writing or publishing done lies in the confusion of these categories.

    >

    Ahrens, Sönke. How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers (p. 42).

    Thank you @zk_1000 for disabusing me of a tremendous error.

    Erdős #2. ZK software components. “If you’re thinking without writing, you only think you’re thinking.” -- Leslie Lamport. Replies delayed, sometimes indefinitely since Life is short.

  • edited February 3

    .

    Post edited by zk_1000 on

    my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

  • edited February 3

    Revised on the basis of comments by @zk_1000. I thank everyone who contributed to this thread.

    Sönke Ahrens discusses three descriptive categories of notes in How to Take Smart Notes. The three categories are: fleeting notes, permanent notes and project notes. The role of the fleeting note in Ahrens's account of the Zettelkasten method is more significant than its name suggests, because of the attitude toward writing that Ahrens wants note takers to adopt. The fleeting note has a normative function in How To Take Smart Notes. Ahrens wants writing to be the reason that note takers do virtually anything. This would be the case if one were to "make writing the only thing that counts."

    First, I'll fix some terminology. At minimum, a Zettelkasten consists a slip box, which may be implemented in software such as The Archive, and a reference manager, such as Zotero. Ahrens includes a pen and a notebook as well (for fleeting notes, to be defined). Sometimes it is convenient to refer to the slip box as the Zettelkasten, however it is (usually) clear from context whether one means the slip box or the entire Zettelkasten, which includes the reference manager. However, there is so much confusion surrounding Ahrens's terminology that I'm going to avoid referring to the Zettelkasten when I mean the slip box. Also, I will be referring to digital Zettelkasten, except when disambiguating terms derived from their physical origin.

    Now for the three categories, with fleeting notes last.

    Permanent notes are notes that end up in the slip box or in a reference manager such as Zotero. It's worth quoting Ahrens here:

    Permanent notes, which will never be thrown away and contain the necessary information in themselves in a permanently understandable way. They are always stored in the same way in the same place, either in the reference system or, written as if for print, in the slip-box.
    (Ahrens pp. 41-42)

    The use of "note" is already a source of confusion, beginning with Literature Notes, and ending with the most important notes, which Ahrens doesn't name.

    The term 'literature note' derives from the note cards on which the prolific sociologist Niklas Luhmann recorded literature citations, Occasionally Luhmann wrote a few brief remarks on the other side of these cards. Despite the terminology, a literature note is a citation in a reference manager, such as Zotero. Ordinarily one doesn't refer to citations as notes, although it is possible to attach notes to citations, in Zotero at least.

    A literature note is a citation, possibly with a note attached to the citation, in a reference manager.

    It's fair to say that "literature note" is misleading. Ahrens uses the term because he wants note takers to cultivate the habit of reading with pen and paper in hand, and to note references by hand, with any remarks that might be appropriate to attach to the citation, once this is entered into a reference manager. Ahrens coins the phrase "fleeting literature note" for the handwritten precursor to the literature note (Ahrens. pp. 44). [I thank @zk_1000 for alerting me to the phrase "fleeting literature note." ]

    Fact. Every literature note is a permanent note. If anything in a Zettelkasten is a literature note, it goes into the reference manager, and not into the slip box.

    What about the permanent notes that aren't literature notes? Ahrens doesn't give them a name, so let's give them a name that appears nowhere in the English translation of How to Take Smart Notes: the Zettel. Based on Ahren's categories, the following will have to do.

    A Zettel is a permanent note that isn't a literature note.

    So much for the most important notes in a Zettelkasten (at least in these terms--see below). A Zettel always resides in the slip box and never resides in the reference manager.

    Zettels are permanent notes, but not conversely. Moreover, neither Zettels nor Literature Notes (citations) are immutable as their name might suggest. They can be revised.

    It's helpful to digress a bit. The Zettelkasten has the function of the shipping container in Ahrens's shipping container analogy. Another closely related analogy is the shipping hub, used by express shipping companies such as FedEx. The analogy illustrates a counterintuitive principle: sometimes a procedure that introduces more work will more than pay for itself later, like sending packages to a hub where they can be sorted and then delivered, instead of delivering them directly. As for the Zettelkasten, the efficiency results from a single repository with notes in a standardized format, in which salient relationships among notes are preserved, and from which notes can be used in longer form writing projects later.

    [Since Ahrens doesn't provide a standardized template for notes, I offer a template for free at https://github.com/flengyel/Zettel. @Will Simpson also has a note template. I also make available a Cornel Notes template in LaTeX and SVG format for Stylus Labs Write, a writing program for digital tablets that I use for mathematical and handwritten notes, and for online note taking and for presentations.]

    Project notes are mentioned briefly by Ahrens. These notes don't have a standard format. They reside outside the Zettelkasten for writing projects that make use Zettelkasten. I won't dwell on these--they figure in the "bottom-up" process Ahrens describes for writing projects that make use of the Zettelkasten.

    Fleeting notes are hand-written notes to be discarded after being recast for inclusion in the Zettelkasten as permanent notes (either Zettels or citations). Ahrens assigns the fleeting note to its own category to emphasize its function and to discuss the attitude that he wants users of the Zettelkasten method to adopt. Ahrens advises reading with paper and pen in hand, and advises against highlighting or marking up books and leaving slips of paper around. Ahrens also expects fleeting notes to be written judiciously on the spot, rewritten as Zettels or citations (if useful) and discarded within a day or two.

    Here's an analogy: the literature note is to the permanent note as the fleeting literature note is to the fleeting note. There is no name in Ahrens for the fleeting note that is rewritten as a Zettel, just as there is no name in Ahrens for the Zettel. The best we can do with the categories Ahrens provides is to say that a fleeting non-literature note may be rewritten as a permanent non-literature note.


    Ahrens's instrumentalism toward writing goes beyond the advice to take notes. He says that one should act as if writing is the only thing that matters. The fleeting note is the initial vehicle of expression through which this radical normative stance is realized. [Now I would like the reader to imagine a sitcom laugh track at my expense for taking a stab at deep thought and the fashionable intellectual virtue of nuance. As for me, I think that having writing inform your conduct is superior to Modern Stoicism, and possibly equal to Epicureanism.]

    I should have recognized this attitude toward writing when first I encountered it in Ahrens: I grew up with writers. Perhaps I missed it because Ahrens is writing for academic writers, but making writing the only thing that counts is for more than the academic writer. In Aristotelian terms, writing is the final cause. Whatever you do, ask yourself, "what writing is in it for me?" Carry your notebook with you wherever you go, the way an artist brings their sketchbook with them everywhere. (I have to bring both.)

    You don't just go to Old John's Diner only to eat breakfast, you go to eavesdrop on the diners at nearby tables and jot down the useful bits of dialogue. And you do not ask permission either. This comes with the predatory imperative to make writing the only thing that matters. You don't go to seminars to be entertained or to catch up on sleep (with exceptions for distinguished faculty, and myself, of course) you go to take (fleeting) notes, with the expectation that you will transform your fleeting notes into the Zettel standard format (and citations) within a day or two. If writing isn't the likely outcome, don't go. Likewise when interacting with others. Other people either help or hinder your writing, or are neutral in that respect. Cultivate those individuals who help, avoid those who don't—an instrumental attitude toward others sometimes called differential association. This is the writer's life, which I understand as instrumental, uncompromising and predatory.

    Ahrens, Sönke. How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers.

    Post edited by ZettelDistraction on

    Erdős #2. ZK software components. “If you’re thinking without writing, you only think you’re thinking.” -- Leslie Lamport. Replies delayed, sometimes indefinitely since Life is short.

  • edited February 6

    20220204192300 Fleeting Notes

    The fleeting note in How To Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens is more significant than its name suggests, because of the normative function that the fleeting note serves in his account of the Zettelkasten Method (Ahrens 2017). For Ahrens, the Zettelkasten Method is a systematic approach to academic research and non-fiction writing in which the first step always consists of jotting down fleeting notes while reading or attending lectures and seminars, or when busy doing something else (Ahrens 23, 41, 43). Also, Ahrens advises writers to act "… as if nothing counts other than writing" (Ahrens 38). Taken literally, this maxim commits the writer to an instrumental approach to life, forever cycling through a workflow that begins with the fleeting note.

    Nomenclature

    Components

    A Zettelkasten consists of three components: a slip-box, which may be implemented in editing and note-linking software such as The Archive, Logseq, Obsidian, Roam Research, Zettel Notes, or Zettlr; a reference manager, such as Zotero or Mendeley; and, a pen and notebook or paper for so-called fleeting notes, to be defined (Ahrens 29-30).

    Ahrens includes a fourth component, an editor (Ahrens 30). In software, the editor is usually combined with the slip-box function, so we refer to three components instead of four. When we refer to the slip-box, we mean the corresponding sofware component. Sometimes it is convenient to refer to the slip-box as the Zettelkasten, however it is (usually) clear from context whether one means the slip-box component or all of the components.

    Workflow

    The Zettelkasten Method is a description of the standardized note formats used and of the workflow of those notes and source references (Ahrens 23, 41, 45). The workflow starts with hand-written notes and ends either with the slip-box or the reference manager, or with project notes for writing projects based on the contents of the Zettelkasten (Ahrens 23, 41-45).

    In Ahrens' account of Niklas Luhmann's Zettelkasten workflow, Luhmann first wrote brief literature notes [italicized terms are defined in "Note categories" below] and used these to write self-contained permanent notes called Zettels, which Luhmann wrote carefully, as if for publication (Ahrens 17-18, 43). Elsewhere in Ahrens, the workflow begins with fleeting notes, which could be revised as literature notes, which are further developed as Zettels; otherwise the fleeting notes are revised directly as Zettels (Ahrens 23). In the extremely rare circumstance that one's thoughts are fully formed as if for print, the preliminary fleeting and literature note steps can be skipped, and one writes a Zettel (Ahrens 23).

    Ahrens misses an opportunity to revisit Luhmann's workflow in terms of the descriptive categories Ahrens identifies, and to relate Luhmann's workflow to the workflow he presents in section 2.1 (Ahrens 23). Examples and diagrams of the workflow would have been helpful. This should have presented no problem, as Ahrens states that "[s]implicity is paramount" (Ahrens 38-40).

    Note categories

    Ahrens identifies three descriptive categories of notes: fleeting notes, permanent notes and project notes (Ahrens, 41).

    Permanent notes are notes that end up in the slip-box or in a reference manager. Quoting Ahrens [emphasis in boldface added]:

    Permanent notes, which will never be thrown away and contain the necessary information in themselves in a permanently understandable way. They are always stored in the same way in the same place, either in the reference system or, written as if for print, in the slip-box.

    (Ahrens 41)

    The term 'literature note' derives from the note cards on which Niklas Luhmann, the prolific sociologist and originator of the Zettelkasten Method, recorded bibliographic references (Ahrens 18). Occasionally Luhmann wrote a few brief remarks on the other side of these cards (Ahrens 18, 43; Schmidt 2013, 170). Despite the ambigious terminology, a literature note is a reference in a reference manager, such as Zotero. Ordinarily one doesn't refer to bibliographic references as notes, although it is possible to attach notes to bibliographic entries in Zotero. In Ahrens, the reference manager is where those notes would go (Ahrens 43).

    A literature note is a bibliographic reference in a reference manager, with one or more attached notes.

    Ahrens uses the terms "fleeting note" and "fleeting literature note" because he wants note takers to cultivate the habit of reading with pen and paper in hand (Ahrens 146). This is crucial: if you don't cultivate this habit, then for Ahrens, you are not following the Zettelkasten Method. Ahrens coins the phrase "fleeting literature note" for the handwritten precursor to the literature note (Ahrens 44). (I thank @zk_1000 for drawing my attention to this phrase.)

    Note. Every literature note is a permanent note. If anything in a Zettelkasten is a literature note, it goes into the reference manager, and not into the slip-box.

    What about the notes that go into the slip-box? Since Ahrens doesn't give them a name, we'll assign them a standard name that appears nowhere in the English translation of How to Take Smart Notes: the Zettel. Using only the descriptive categories Ahrens provides, the next definition will have to do, for now.

    A Zettel is a permanent note that isn't a literature note.

    Ahrens refers to these notes as "the main notes in the slip-box" in exactly one place (Ahrens 44). A Zettel always resides in the slip-box and never resides in the reference manager.

    It's helpful to digress a bit. The Zettelkasten has the function of the shipping container in Ahrens's shipping container analogy (Ahrens, 40). Another closely related analogy is the shipping hub, used by express shipping companies such as FedEx. The analogy illustrates a counterintuitive principle: sometimes a procedure that introduces a detour will operate at larger scales than a simple direct procedure (Ahrens 39). Express delivery companies handle large volumes of packages by sending them to a central hub where they can be sorted, dispatched, and delivered, instead of delivering them directly. As for the Zettelkasten, efficiencies result from a single repository with linked notes in a standardized format, in which salient relationships among notes are preserved, and from which notes can be used in longer form writing projects later.

    Since Ahrens doesn't provide example Zettels or offer a standardized template for notes, I offer a template for free at https://github.com/flengyel/Zettel.

    Project Notes are mentioned by Ahrens in four places (Ahrens 42, 45, 46, 71). These notes don't have a standard format (Ahrens 45). They reside outside the Zettelkasten for writing projects that make use Zettelkasten. I won't dwell on these--they figure in the "bottom-up" process Ahrens describes for writing projects that make use of the Zettelkasten (Ahrens 23).

    Fleeting notes are hand-written notes to be discarded after being recast for inclusion in the Zettelkasten as permanent notes (either Zettels or literature notes, which are bibliographic references with attached notes). Ahrens assigns the fleeting note to its own category to emphasize its function and to emphasize the habits that he wants users of the Zettelkasten Method to adopt. "Fleeting notes are there for capturing ideas quickly while you are busy doing something else" (Ahrens 43).

    Ahrens advises reading with paper and pen in hand, and advises against highlighting or marking up books and leaving slips of paper around. Ahrens also expects fleeting notes to be written judiciously on the spot, rewritten as Zettels or bibliographic references, and discarded within a day or two (Ahrens 43).

    There is no name in Ahrens for the fleeting note that is rewritten as a Zettel, just as there is no name in Ahrens for the Zettel.

    Malleability?

    Zettels are permanent notes, but not conversely. Moreover, neither Zettels nor Literature Notes are immutable as their name might suggest. They can be revised—however, I advise caution when revising permanent notes. There are trade-offs to be aware of. Zettels are supposed to be self-contained: revision could result in loss of context (Ahrens 44). Since Zettels are linked to other Zettels, changing one Zettel could affect any other note connected to it, directly or indirectly. There is also the risk of obliterating history; of losing track of mistakes and dead ends to avoid; and of creating a misleading record of ever-upward progress (Ahrens 125-127).

    … our culture is focused on success and how we neglect the important lessons from failure (Burkeman 2013).

    (Ahrens 125).

    It is very good to know what has already proven to not work if we try to come up with new ideas that do work.

    (Ahrens 127)

    Instrumentalism

    Ahrens' instrumentalism toward writing goes well beyond the advice to take notes. He says that one should [focus] on writing as if nothing else counts (Ahrens 37). The fleeting note is the initial medium of expression through which this normative stance is realized.

    [ As for me, I think that having writing inform your conduct is superior to Modern Stoicism, and possibly equal to Epicureanism (Wilson 2019).]

    I should have recognized this attitude toward writing when first I encountered it in Ahrens: I grew up with writers. Perhaps I missed it because Ahrens is writing for academic and non-fiction writers, but making writing the only thing that matters is for more than the academic writer. In Aristotelian terms, writing is the final cause (Falcon 2022). Whatever you do, ask yourself, "what writing is in it for me?" Carry your notebook with you wherever you go, the way an artist brings their sketchbook with them everywhere (Gurney and Kinkade1982). (I have to bring both.)

    You don't just go to Old John's Diner only to eat breakfast, you go to eavesdrop on the diners at nearby tables and jot down the useful bits of dialogue. And you do not ask permission either. This comes with the predatory imperative to make writing the only thing that matters. You don't go to seminars to be entertained or to catch up on sleep (with exceptions for distinguished faculty) you go to take (fleeting) notes, with the expectation that you will transform your fleeting notes into the Zettel standard format (and citations) within a day or two. If writing isn't the likely outcome, don't go. Likewise when interacting with others. Other people either help or hinder your writing, or are neutral in that respect. Cultivate those individuals who help, avoid those who don't—an instrumental attitude toward others sometimes called differential association (Sternberg 1981). This is the writer's life, which I understand as instrumental, uncompromising and predatory.

    References

    Ahrens, Sönke. 2017. How to take smart notes: one simple technique to boost writing, learning and thinking: for students, academics and nonfiction book writers. North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace.

    Falcon, Andrea. 2022. “Aristotle on Causality.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Spring 2022. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Aristotle On Causality.

    Gurney, James, and Thomas Kinkade. 1982. The artist’s guide to sketching. Watson-Guptill; New York, N.Y.

    Schmidt, Johannes F.K. 2013. “Der Nachlass Niklas Luhmanns – eine erste Sichtung: Zettelkasten und Manuskripte.” Soziale Systeme 19 (1): 167–83.

    Sternberg, David Joel. 1981. How to complete and survive a doctoral dissertation. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

    Wilson, Catherine. 2019. How to be an epicurean: the ancient art of living well. New York (N.Y.): Basic books.

    Post edited by ZettelDistraction on

    Erdős #2. ZK software components. “If you’re thinking without writing, you only think you’re thinking.” -- Leslie Lamport. Replies delayed, sometimes indefinitely since Life is short.

  • edited February 6

    @ZettelDistraction I genuinely love what you're doing here. I need to print this out the read thru it. As I mentioned, I have this knee jerk response to the idea that the fleeting note should be given a place of significance, but I can't argue with your depth and the generous way you're framing the argument. So, I'm psyched to read and learn from you on it. Will report back once read more closely.

    Now how can I print just your comment.... Hmmm....

  • edited February 7

    @taurusnoises Thank you for your interest. I disregarded the fleeting note myself at first. For Ahrens and for many people, writing is rewriting. The fleeting note is there to begin the process of rewriting.

    I suppose the post is repetitive and could be edited further. I wanted to get the workflow, or enough of the workflow down in one place so that it could be visualized. At some point I will post a diagram and revise my checklist, but now I have flee to write some fleeting notes on a chapter I'm reviewing...

    Post edited by ZettelDistraction on

    Erdős #2. ZK software components. “If you’re thinking without writing, you only think you’re thinking.” -- Leslie Lamport. Replies delayed, sometimes indefinitely since Life is short.

  • @ZettelDistraction

    I think you have the definition / description of the fleeting note exactly right.

    However, I admit that I am prejudiced by a lifetime of taking fleeting notes and recognizing them for what they were. It was almost an obsession. I cannot listen to a talk or lecture or read a book without taking fleeting notes (either pen and paper or typed on a computer).

    When I stumbled upon this forum and the concept of a Zettelkasten, and then upon Ahrens, I had an "aha" moment - now I knew what to do with all those fleeting notes!

  • edited February 7

    @GeoEng51 you're a better man than I am: I had to write this post and the revisions to convince myself to get into the habit of writing and using fleeting notes.

    Ahrens softens a little near the end and says it's ok to make marginal comments and underline sentences in books (this is Mortimer Adler's advice in "How to Read a Book," which puts me to sleep)-- provided one recognizes these notes are no better than fleeting notes that will rapidly depreciate in a day or so. But the issue is cultivating the habit.

    Now I see one place where I could edit: the paragraph on fleeting literature notes could be combined with the second-to-last paragraph before "Malleability?"

    Erdős #2. ZK software components. “If you’re thinking without writing, you only think you’re thinking.” -- Leslie Lamport. Replies delayed, sometimes indefinitely since Life is short.

  • edited February 7

    20220204192300 Fleeting Notes

    The fleeting note in How To Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens is more significant than its name suggests, because of the normative function that the fleeting note serves in his account of the Zettelkasten Method (Ahrens 2017). For Ahrens, the Zettelkasten Method is a systematic approach to academic research and non-fiction writing in which the first step is to jot down fleeting notes while reading or attending lectures and seminars, or when busy doing something else (Ahrens 23, 41, 43). Also, Ahrens advises writers to act "… as if nothing counts other than writing" (Ahrens 38). Taken literally, this maxim commits the writer to an instrumental approach to life, forever cycling through a workflow that begins with the fleeting note.

    Nomenclature

    Components

    A Zettelkasten consists of three components: a slip-box, which may be implemented in editing and note-linking software such as The Archive, Logseq, Obsidian, Roam Research, Zettel Notes, or Zettlr; a reference manager, such as Zotero or Mendeley; and, a pen and notebook or paper for so-called fleeting notes, to be defined (Ahrens 29-30).

    Ahrens includes a fourth component, an editor (Ahrens 30). In software, the editor is usually combined with the slip-box function, so we refer to three components instead of four. When we refer to the slip-box, we mean the corresponding sofware component. Sometimes it is convenient to refer to the slip-box as the Zettelkasten, however it is (usually) clear from context whether one means the slip-box component or all of the components.

    Workflow

    The Zettelkasten Method is a description of the standardized note formats used and of the workflow of those notes and source references (Ahrens 23, 41, 45). The workflow starts with hand-written notes and ends either with the slip-box or the reference manager, or with project notes for writing projects based on the contents of the Zettelkasten (Ahrens 23, 41-45).

    In Ahrens' account of Niklas Luhmann's Zettelkasten workflow, Luhmann first wrote brief literature notes [italicized terms are defined in "Note categories" below] and used these to write self-contained permanent notes called Zettels, which Luhmann wrote carefully, as if for publication (Ahrens 17-18, 43). Elsewhere in Ahrens, the workflow begins with fleeting notes, which could be revised as literature notes, which are further developed as Zettels; otherwise the fleeting notes are revised directly as Zettels (Ahrens 23). In the extremely rare circumstance that one's thoughts are fully formed as if for print, the preliminary fleeting and literature note steps can be skipped, and one writes a Zettel (Ahrens 23).

    Ahrens misses an opportunity to revisit Luhmann's workflow in terms of the descriptive categories Ahrens identifies, and to relate Luhmann's workflow to the workflow he presents in section 2.1 (Ahrens 23). Examples and diagrams of the workflow would have been helpful. This should have presented no problem, as Ahrens states that "[s]implicity is paramount" (Ahrens 38-40).

    Note categories

    Ahrens identifies three descriptive categories of notes: fleeting notes, permanent notes and project notes (Ahrens, 41).

    Permanent notes are notes that end up in the slip-box or in a reference manager. Quoting Ahrens [emphasis in boldface added]:

    Permanent notes, which will never be thrown away and contain the necessary information in themselves in a permanently understandable way. They are always stored in the same way in the same place, either in the reference system or, written as if for print, in the slip-box.

    (Ahrens 41)

    The term 'literature note' derives from the note cards on which Niklas Luhmann, the prolific sociologist and originator of the Zettelkasten Method, recorded bibliographic references (Ahrens 18). Occasionally Luhmann wrote a few brief remarks on the other side of these cards (Ahrens 18, 43; Schmidt 2013, 170). Despite the ambigious terminology, a literature note is a reference in a reference manager, such as Zotero. Ordinarily one doesn't refer to bibliographic references as notes, although it is possible to attach notes to bibliographic entries in Zotero. In Ahrens, the reference manager is where those notes would go (Ahrens 43).

    A literature note is a bibliographic reference in a reference manager, with one or more attached notes.

    Note. Every literature note is a permanent note. If anything in a Zettelkasten is a literature note, it goes into the reference manager, and not into the slip-box.

    What about the notes that go into the slip-box? Since Ahrens doesn't give them a name, we'll assign them a standard name that appears nowhere in the English translation of How to Take Smart Notes: the Zettel. Using only the descriptive categories Ahrens provides, the next definition will have to do, for now.

    A Zettel is a permanent note that isn't a literature note.

    Ahrens refers to these notes as "the main notes in the slip-box" in exactly one place (Ahrens 44). A Zettel always resides in the slip-box and never resides in the reference manager.

    It's helpful to digress a bit. The Zettelkasten has the function of the shipping container in Ahrens's shipping container analogy (Ahrens, 40). Another closely related analogy is the shipping hub, used by express shipping companies such as FedEx. The analogy illustrates a counterintuitive principle: sometimes a procedure that introduces a detour will operate at larger scales than a simple direct procedure (Ahrens 39). Express delivery companies handle large volumes of packages by sending them to a central hub where they can be sorted, dispatched, and delivered, instead of delivering them directly. As for the Zettelkasten, efficiencies result from a single repository with linked notes in a standardized format, in which salient relationships among notes are preserved, and from which notes can be used in longer form writing projects later.

    Since Ahrens doesn't provide example Zettels or offer a standardized template for notes, I offer a template for free at https://github.com/flengyel/Zettel.

    Project Notes are mentioned by Ahrens in four places (Ahrens 42, 45, 46, 71). These notes don't have a standard format (Ahrens 45). They reside outside the Zettelkasten for writing projects that make use of the Zettelkasten (Ahrens 23).

    Fleeting notes are hand-written notes to be discarded after being recast for inclusion in the Zettelkasten as permanent notes (either Zettels or literature notes, which are bibliographic references with attached notes). Ahrens assigns the fleeting note to its own category to emphasize its function and to emphasize the habits that he wants users of the Zettelkasten Method to adopt. "Fleeting notes are there for capturing ideas quickly while you are busy doing something else" (Ahrens 43).

    Ahrens advises reading with paper and pen in hand, and advises against highlighting or marking up books and leaving slips of paper around (Ahrens 29, 85, 87). Ahrens also expects fleeting notes to be written judiciously on the spot, rewritten as Zettels or Literature Notes, and discarded within a day or two (Ahrens 43). This is crucial: if you don't cultivate the habit of reading with pen and paper in hand, then for Ahrens, you are not following the Zettelkasten Method (Ahrens 146).

    Ahrens refers to the "fleeting literature note" for the handwritten precursor to the literature note (Ahrens 44). (I thank \@zk_1000 for drawing my attention to this phrase.) There is no name in Ahrens for the fleeting note that is rewritten as a Zettel, just as there is no name in Ahrens for the Zettel.

    Malleability?

    Zettels are permanent notes, but not conversely. Moreover, neither Zettels nor Literature Notes are immutable as their name might suggest. They can be revised—however, I advise caution when revising permanent notes. There are trade-offs to be aware of. Zettels are supposed to be self-contained: revision could result in loss of context (Ahrens 44). Since Zettels are linked to other Zettels, changing one Zettel could affect any other note connected to it, directly or indirectly. There is also the risk of obliterating history; of losing track of mistakes and dead ends to avoid; and of creating a misleading record of ever-upward progress (Ahrens 125-127).

    … our culture is focused on success ... we neglect the important lessons from failure (Burkeman 2013).

    (Ahrens 125).

    It is very good to know what has already proven to not work if we try to come up with new ideas that do work.

    (Ahrens 127)

    Instrumentalism

    Ahrens' instrumentalism toward writing goes well beyond the advice to take notes. He says that one should [focus] on writing as if nothing else counts (Ahrens 37). The fleeting note is the initial medium of expression through which this normative stance is realized.

    [ As for me, I think that having writing inform your conduct is superior to Modern Stoicism, and possibly equal to Epicureanism (Wilson 2019).]

    I should have recognized this attitude toward writing when first I encountered it in Ahrens: I grew up with writers. Perhaps I missed it because Ahrens is writing for academic and non-fiction writers, but making writing the only thing that matters is for more than the academic writer. In Aristotelian terms, writing is the final cause (Falcon 2022). Whatever you do, ask yourself, "what writing is in it for me?" Carry your notebook with you wherever you go, the way an artist brings their sketchbook with them everywhere (Gurney and Kinkade1982). (I have to bring both.)

    You don't just go to Old John's Diner only to eat breakfast, you go to eavesdrop on the diners at nearby tables and jot down the useful bits of dialogue. And you do not ask permission either. This comes with the predatory imperative to make writing the only thing that matters. You don't go to seminars to be entertained or to catch up on sleep (with exceptions for distinguished faculty) you go to take (fleeting) notes, with the expectation that you will transform your fleeting notes into the Zettel standard format (and citations) within a day or two. If writing isn't the likely outcome, don't go. Likewise when interacting with others. Other people either help or hinder your writing, or are neutral in that respect. Cultivate those individuals who help, avoid those who don't—an instrumental attitude toward others sometimes called differential association (Sternberg 1981). This is the writer's life, which I understand as instrumental, uncompromising and predatory.

    References

    Ahrens, Sönke. 2017. How to take smart notes: one simple technique to boost writing, learning and thinking: for students, academics and nonfiction book writers. North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace.

    Falcon, Andrea. 2022. “Aristotle on Causality.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Spring 2022. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Aristotle On Causality.

    Gurney, James, and Thomas Kinkade. 1982. The artist’s guide to sketching. Watson-Guptill; New York, N.Y.

    Schmidt, Johannes F.K. 2013. “Der Nachlass Niklas Luhmanns – eine erste Sichtung: Zettelkasten und Manuskripte.” Soziale Systeme 19 (1): 167–83.

    Sternberg, David Joel. 1981. How to complete and survive a doctoral dissertation. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

    Wilson, Catherine. 2019. How to be an epicurean: the ancient art of living well. New York (N.Y.): Basic books.

    Post edited by ZettelDistraction on

    Erdős #2. ZK software components. “If you’re thinking without writing, you only think you’re thinking.” -- Leslie Lamport. Replies delayed, sometimes indefinitely since Life is short.

  • edited February 7

    From Fleeting Notes to Project Notes

    Terminological troubles beset the account of note categories in How To Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens (Ahrens 2017). The book reads as though it emerged unedited from the author's Zettelkasten. The most important type of note doesn't have a name. This post aims to settle the record.

    Note categories named and unnamed

    Ahrens discusses five categories of notes: three main descriptive categories of notes: fleeting note, permanent notes and project notes; and two subcategories of permanent notes: literature notes and Zettels, although the term Zettel occurs nowhere in Ahrens (Ahrens, 41). Italicized terms are defined in "Note categories in detail" below, after some remarks on the components of a Zettekasten and on workflow in the Zettelkasten Method according to Ahrens.

    Zettelkasten components

    A Zettelkasten consists of three components: a slip-box, which may be implemented in editing and note-linking software such as The Archive, Logseq, Obsidian, Roam Research, Zettel Notes, or Zettlr; a reference manager, such as Zotero or Mendeley; and, a pen and notebook or paper for so-called fleeting notes, to be defined (Ahrens 29-30).

    Ahrens includes a fourth component, an editor (Ahrens 30). In software, the editor is usually combined with the slip-box function, so we refer to three components instead of four. When we refer to the slip-box, we mean the corresponding sofware component. Sometimes it is convenient to refer to the slip-box as the Zettelkasten, however it is (usually) clear from context whether one means the slip-box component or all of the components.

    Workflow

    The Zettelkasten Method is a description of the standardized note formats used and of the workflow of those notes and source references among the components of the Zettelkasten (Ahrens 23, 41, 45). The workflow starts with hand-written notes and ends either with permanent notes in slip-box or the reference manager, or with project notes for writing projects based on the contents of the Zettelkasten (Ahrens 23, 41-45).

    Niklas Luhmann's workflow

    In Ahrens's account of Niklas Luhmann's Zettelkasten workflow, Luhmann first wrote brief literature notes and used these to write self-contained permanent notes called Zettels, which Luhmann wrote carefully, as if for publication (Ahrens 17-18, 43).

    Ahrens' workflow

    For Ahrens, the Zettelkasten workflow begins with fleeting notes, which could be revised as literature notes, which are further developed as Zettels; otherwise the fleeting notes are revised directly as Zettels (Ahrens 23). In the rare circumstance that one's thoughts are fully formed as if for print, the preliminary fleeting and literature note steps can be skipped, and one writes a Zettel (Ahrens 23).

    Ahrens misses an opportunity to revisit Luhmann's workflow in terms of the descriptive categories Ahrens identifies, and to relate Luhmann's workflow to the workflow he presents in section 2.1 (Ahrens 23). Examples and diagrams of the workflow would have been helpful. This should have presented no problem, as Ahrens states that "[s]implicity is paramount" (Ahrens 38-40).

    Note categories in detail

    Fleeting notes

    Fleeting notes are hand-written notes to be discarded after being recast for inclusion in the Zettelkasten as permanent notes (see below). Ahrens assigns the fleeting note to its own category to emphasize its function and to emphasize the habits that he wants users of the Zettelkasten Method to adopt. "Fleeting notes are there for capturing ideas quickly while you are busy doing something else" (Ahrens 43).

    Ahrens advises reading with paper and pen in hand and advises against highlighting or marking up books and leaving slips of paper around (Ahrens 29, 85, 87). Ahrens also expects fleeting notes to be written judiciously on the spot, rewritten as Zettels or Literature Notes, and discarded within a day or two (Ahrens 43). This is crucial: if you don't cultivate the habit of reading with pen and paper in hand, then for Ahrens, you are not following the Zettelkasten Method (Ahrens 146).

    Ahrens refers to the "fleeting literature note" for the handwritten precursor to the literature note (Ahrens 44). There is no name in Ahrens for the fleeting note that is rewritten as a Zettel, just as there is no name in Ahrens for the Zettel.

    The fleeting note is more significant than its name suggests, because of its normative function in Ahren's account of the Zettelkasten Method. For Ahrens, the Zettelkasten Method is a systematic approach to academic research and non-fiction writing in which the first step is to jot down fleeting notes while reading or attending lectures and seminars, or when busy doing something else (Ahrens 23, 41, 43). Also, Ahrens advises writers to act "… as if nothing counts other than writing" (Ahrens 38). Taken literally, this maxim commits the writer to an instrumental approach to life, forever cycling through a workflow that begins with the fleeting note. We leave the topic of instrumentalism in Ahrens for another post.

    Permanent notes

    Permanent notes are self-contained notes that end up in the slip-box or in a reference manager. Quoting Ahrens [emphasis in boldface added]:

    Permanent notes, which will never be thrown away and contain the necessary information in themselves in a permanently understandable way. They are always stored in the same way in the same place, either in the reference system or, written as if for print, in the slip-box.

    (Ahrens 41)

    Literature notes: a subcategory of permanent notes

    A literature note is a source reference in a reference manager, optionally with one or more attached notes.

    The term 'literature note' derives from the note cards on which Niklas Luhmann, the prolific sociologist and originator of the Zettelkasten Method, recorded bibliographic references (Ahrens 18). Occasionally Luhmann wrote a few brief remarks on the other side of these cards (Ahrens 18, 43; Schmidt 2013, 170). Despite the ambigious terminology, a literature note is a reference in a reference manager, such as Zotero. Ordinarily one doesn't refer to bibliographic references as notes, although it is possible to attach notes to bibliographic entries in Zotero. In Ahrens, the reference manager is where those notes would go (Ahrens 43).

    Literature notes always end up in the reference manager.

    Zettels: a subcategory of permanent notes

    What about the notes that go into the slip-box? Since Ahrens doesn't give them a name, we'll assign them a standard name that appears nowhere in the English translation of How to Take Smart Notes: the Zettel. Using only the descriptive categories Ahrens provides, the next definition will have to do, for now.

    A Zettel is a permanent note that isn't a literature note.

    Ahrens refers to these notes as "the main notes in the slip-box" in exactly one place (Ahrens 44). Since Ahrens doesn't provide example Zettels or offer a standard template for notes, I offer a template for free at https://github.com/flengyel/Zettel.

    Malleability?

    Zettels are permanent notes, but not conversely. Moreover, neither Zettels nor Literature Notes are immutable as their name might suggest. They can be revised—however, I advise caution when revising permanent notes. There are trade-offs to be aware of. Zettels are supposed to be self-contained: revision could result in loss of context (Ahrens 44). Since Zettels are linked to other Zettels, changing one Zettel could affect any other note connected to it, directly or indirectly. There is also the risk of obliterating history; of losing track of mistakes and dead ends to avoid; and of creating a misleading record of ever-upward progress (Ahrens 125-127).

    … our culture is focused on success and how we neglect the important lessons from failure (Burkeman 2013).

    (Ahrens 125).

    It is very good to know what has already proven to not work if we try to come up with new ideas that do work.

    (Ahrens 127)

    Project notes

    Project Notes are mentioned by Ahrens in four places (Ahrens 42, 45, 46, 71). These notes don't have a standard format and reside outside the Zettelkasten for writing projects that make use of the Zettelkasten (Ahrens 23).

    Acknowledgements. I wish to thank @taurusnoises for professional editorial assistance and encouragement. @zk_1000 alerted me to the term "fleeting literature note" and pointed out that permanent notes subsume literature notes. @ctietze suggested additional citations.

    References

    Ahrens, Sönke. 2017. How to take smart notes: one simple technique to boost writing, learning and thinking: for students, academics and nonfiction book writers. North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace.

    Schmidt, Johannes F.K. 2013. “Der Nachlass Niklas Luhmanns – eine erste Sichtung: Zettelkasten und Manuskripte.” Soziale Systeme 19 (1): 167–83.

    Post edited by ZettelDistraction on

    Erdős #2. ZK software components. “If you’re thinking without writing, you only think you’re thinking.” -- Leslie Lamport. Replies delayed, sometimes indefinitely since Life is short.

  • @ZettelDistraction It's getting tighter and more clear with every iteration. Loving the progress.

  • edited February 7

    There is a discussion on project notes in another thread, but I'm going to refrain from contributing on account of work (and the Fleeting note piece), except to say here that I agree with @GeoEng51 on the need to separate project folders from the Zettelkasten. For me the Zettelkasten more like the OULIPO: Ouvroir de littérature potentielle--the workshop of potential literature. This isn't how OULIPO conceives of itself, but I imagine them trapped in my Zettelkasten, making the best of it.

    I see the need for diagrams, including a box for a human editor, after the project notes box. But I won't have time to create proper diagrams, today at least. Another day, another post.

    Post edited by ZettelDistraction on

    Erdős #2. ZK software components. “If you’re thinking without writing, you only think you’re thinking.” -- Leslie Lamport. Replies delayed, sometimes indefinitely since Life is short.

  • @ZettelDistraction great work. It was interesting to see how you were making progress on this.

    my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

  • edited February 7

    @zk_1000 Thank you. You set me straight on a point I conceded, so I should mention it.

    Edit: done.

    Erdős #2. ZK software components. “If you’re thinking without writing, you only think you’re thinking.” -- Leslie Lamport. Replies delayed, sometimes indefinitely since Life is short.

  • OULIPO and Zettelkasten.... It's absolutely a connection that needs to be made. Had never thought of that. Now I'm gonna.

  • @taurusnoises said:
    OULIPO and Zettelkasten.... It's absolutely a connection that needs to be made. Had never thought of that. Now I'm gonna.

    Agreed! Perhaps we should start a poetry challenge using only fragments from Zettel titles!

  • @Sociopoetic there's also something very n+7 about the ZK. Sometimes I'll stretch a connection between two notes now to see if somewhere down the line the cxn becomes stronger. In those moments it really feel like I'm "defamiliarizing the form" (to use a Russian Formalist term).

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